When Sarah Jama sought advice in Grade 12 about what she should do after high school, she was steered toward another year of high school and told to pursue college instead of university. “It happens to a lot of people — not just with disabilities, but also racialized people,” Jama tells Nam Kiwanuka on The Agenda in the Summer.
She didn’t listen to that advice, instead opting to pursue a social-sciences degree at McMaster University, in Hamilton. While a student there, she co-founded the Disability Justice Network of Ontario, a group that works to create a world in which people with disabilities feel free to fit in anywhere and build community. The grassroots organization takes inspiration from Sins Valid, a United States-based collective committed to promoting social and economic justice for people with disabilities.
“Oftentimes, people with disabilities are taught from a young age that you’re a burden on society,” she says. “So, if you need support, you can go to this service or that service. But you’re not taught to ask the critical question of where to go when the services that exist don’t work for you. So we’re building the political capacity in young people to hold community spaces and institutions responsible for the spaces they create.”
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Jama makes a distinction between accessibility goals and disability justice: “When people talk about accessibility, it’s usually around how we build a world around this pre-existing society that fits people with disabilities.” Disability justice, though, involves building a society “that’s free and fits everybody,” she says, and asking “How do we interact with our justice system? How do we interact with our education system? How has our health-care system hurt us in a variety of ways that attack our bodily autonomy?”
Through the 2005 Accessibilities for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, the Ontario government has committed to making the province fully accessible by 2025. In a report released earlier this year, former lieutenant governor David Onley, who was tasked with reviewing the implementation of AODA, found that the province was far from achieving its goals. “Only urgent, wide-ranging action from the provincial government can put a stop to the ongoing cycle of human rights violations,” he told the CBC.
Jama agrees. “[The act] has no teeth,” she says. “You can’t just say, on principle, that we’re going to have an accessible province and not put money where your mouth is. There’s not enough investment in making sure people are being supported financially in businesses and organizations in order to make our province accessible. We need to be directly investing in ways that will incentivize businesses to become accessible. We also need to be thinking beyond just AODA.”
Such thinking, Jama believes, should involve changing how and what students learn about disabilities, accessibility, and differences in people’s abilities. Instead of separating disabled students from their peers and preventing them from participating in activities and class trips — which was her experience — educators, she says, should put more emphasis on inclusivity and understanding. “It’s important to accommodate students individually while also having systemic analyses in place in these institutions,” she says. “I also think it’s important to teach disability history in our school systems. It’s ridiculous to me that I had to self-teach and learn in post-secondary about the history of treatment of people with disabilities in my province, in my city.”